The Fight Against Ebola Is in West Africa, Not the US, Officials Warn
At a hearing on the Hill Friday, defense officials say the real fight against Ebola is in West Africa. By Molly O’Toole
Just hours after New York health authorities confirmed the fourth diagnosis of Ebola in the United States, members of Congress grilled medical and military officials on the country’s preparedness, warning, “We cannot assume it will be the last.”
Those ominous words from Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., echoed the warning he and others gave Friday at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. They cited the new case of Ebola in New York as evidence that the U.S. must deal with this crisis at its roots—in West Africa.
“We can no longer ignore the crisis in West Africa,” Cummings said. “We have a fundamental moral and ethical obligation to address the crisis in Africa.”
“We are the richest nation in the world and we have the resources and the expertise to make a difference,” he said. “It’s also in our self interest as a nation.”
Michael Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said the Defense Department is taking the threat very seriously.
“It is not only a global threat, but a national security priority for the United States,” he said. “Neither the U.S. nor the international community can build a moat around this issue in West Africa, and DOD’s efforts in the region are an essential component to contain and reduce the epidemic.”
Ebola, a disease without a known cure, has claimed nearly 5,000 lives in Africa, almost entirely in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization. But WHO officials said Wednesday the true number of fatalities could be as many as three times higher -- based on reports of a 70 percent death rate, that’s roughly 15,000 deaths. On Thursday, a sixth country, Mali, confirmed its first case. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Defense Department estimate there could be as many as 1.4 million cases by January, according to Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass.
Only one Ebola death has been confirmed in the U.S., the first case diagnosed in the Western Hemisphere since Ebola appeared in 1976. On Thursday, officials reported the fourth case of Ebola in the country, Dr. Craig Spencer, who returned to New York City after treating Ebola patients in Guinea, the origin of the outbreak. In both cases, the disease was transported to the U.S. after being contracted in West Africa.
Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., accused members of the administration, particularly CDC Director Thomas Frieden, of misleading the American people about U.S. preparedness for an outbreak.
“Recognize that what we don’t know, could kill us,” Issa said.
Several lawmakers focused on the most recent case in New York—where the patient rode the subway, went out to eat and even went bowling—as evidence of continued shortfalls in the U.S. system of response.
“I am very concerned about the protocols for protecting the American public,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, speaking of procedures established by both the CDC and Defense Department. He cited concerns about the “multiplier effect.”
“Certainly there were some breaks in the links of the chain,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services. But she noted later, “Ebola has never been in this Hemisphere before, and as we are learning those things, we are tightening up our procedures as quickly as possible.”
Other lawmakers repeated calls for a travel ban, which the Obama administration has resisted. Witnesses at the hearing Friday agreed that a travel ban would be unproductive.
As the hearing progressed, a congressman shared some good news: the National Institutes of Health had just reported that one of the infected nurses, Nina Pham, had been declared Ebola-free. President Barack Obama met with Pham at the White House shortly after, giving her a large embrace.
Rather than politicize the issue, Cummings said the most effective response to the disease is preventing its spread by focusing resources on West Africa.
“We are in a political season, and you’ve got elections only a few days away,” Cummings told reporters after the hearing, “but as I said from the very beginning, this issue is so crucial, that we must not move only to common ground, we must move to higher ground.”